A rare form of tongue cancer forced Diana Verrilli to relearn how to speak, and along with regaining her voice, she acquired a deep commitment to live her best life.
“I learned a lot about myself and the importance of finding joy every day,” said Diana, who lives in Boulder with her family. “I’m driven to enjoy a happy and healthy life.”
In February 2018, Diana was 52, and all was going well in the world she shared with her family. She was married, her two children were in high school, and she thrived as an executive at a large health care company. She was active, fit, and an avid outdoor enthusiast who loved to ski, hike, ride horses and travel.
Born and raised in Millbrook, New York, Diana attended Smith College, and then Harvard University for her master’s degree in health policy. After working in Washington, D.C., and California, she moved to Boulder in 1998, married that year, and she and her husband David Raduziner had a son and daughter, now 23 and 22.
“It was a dream life, and then everything came shattering down.”
The wrecking ball came in the form of a tiny canker sore on the left side of her tongue that was stubbornly slow to heal, prompting a visit to an otolaryngologist, followed by a biopsy. Two weeks later, she was in surgery with Dr. Chris Oliver, head and neck surgical oncologist at UCHealth Highlands Ranch Hospital.
“I had a great family and career; I was at the top of my game. I felt great and was super healthy,” she said. “It was such an anomaly. I never smoked and drank only occasionally … and then this.”
Facing tongue cancer treatment
“This” was Stage 3 squamous cell carcinoma on her tongue, a rare, aggressive oral cancer.
Diana ended up having surgery to remove the tumor, along with 100 lymph nodes in an area from her left ear, under her jaw, to her mid chin.
“Cancer of the tongue is scary and very consequential,” Oliver said, “Most of us don’t really think about how integral the tongue is to so many essential functions. It’s the unsung hero of our daily life. But what’s left after cancer surgery has got to work that much harder.”
After the March 2018 surgery, Diana completed numerous chemotherapy rounds and six weeks of daily radiation so intense that her neck and chest burned, and a feeding tube was necessary since she was unable to chew or swallow.
She also developed a pulmonary embolism after treatment, which occurs when the blood vessels that send blood to the lungs suddenly become blocked. As tough as this ordeal sounds, she faced an even more exacting trial in the many months ahead as she had to retrain and relearn so many essentials that we all take for granted.
“After surgery to remove the tumor, I had to relearn a lot in terms of how I spoke, how I chewed and how I swallowed. All of it was much harder than I had anticipated.”
‘All in’ on her cancer rehab
She began an intensive regimen during the summer of 2018 to reclaim what the cancer had taken away, including:
- Learning how to chew, eat and swallow again through tongue rehabilitation: “I had to build my tongue muscles back, and they had to work differently than before” she said.
- Building her neck strength through physical therapy to prevent nerve damage, maintain flexibility and prevent fibrosis from setting in: “I had a lot of pain and tightness in my neck after the surgery and radiation.”
- Training her voice through speech therapy and work with a vocalist: “By mid-July, I’d lost my voice, as the radiation had damaged my vocal cords and my mouth was very sore.”
- Staying strong: Anticipating the marathon ahead of her, Diana gained 10 pounds before surgery as sort of a reserve, as she was on a feeding tube from April to August as her body healed.
- Receiving massage therapy and acupuncture to try to restore some of the lost functionality of her salivary glands.
Diana pushed herself to return to work in as best shape as possible, and in September 2018, a little more than six months after her cancer diagnosis, she was back on the job. A self-described perfectionist, she was nervous about coming back to work. Her voice was often strained by mid-day, but she continued in various leadership roles and worked for another four years before leaving her job in January.
“That’s the thing about this kind of cancer. Every time I opened my mouth, it was clear something had happened. It was hard because I wanted to be back to my old self, but it would be two years before I would feel like myself,” she said.
She’s now excited to start a new chapter.
Life after tongue cancer
Oliver, who continues to see Diana every four months for checkups, was impressed and heartened by the diligence she showed in her rehab. Since the surgery, he’s been able to achieve better symmetry in her face, and her scars are barely discernable.
He said her story is a reminder about the need for routine oral cancer screening, especially as some studies have shown an increase in head and neck cancers among young women with no history of smoking or tobacco use.
“She’s worked hard and done well with lots and lots of different types of therapy. She’s quite inspiring and has had a fantastic attitude and been an incredibly positive person throughout this whole time.”
Her friend and neighbor of 25 years Nina Donohue agrees.
“The thing about Diana is she’s an amazing person in her sense of personal drive: she’s stoic, strong, goal-oriented, diligent and self-disciplined. I never saw her feel sorry for herself,” Nina said. “She glows with a beauty from outside and within.”
Her husband, David, credits his wife’s mental and physical strength augmented by the love and support he and the children provided throughout the entire process of treatment and healing.
“Her treatment and recovery tested her,” he said. “But her commitment to return to full function was complete and she made it happen. And she actually came out of it more balanced, self-possessed and funny – a bonus!”
Now, five years later, Diana has had the chance to reflect on all she has endured the past few years.
She misses some things that she can no longer enjoy, such as spicy and salty foods and wine; but overall, her health is excellent, and her speaking voice has returned to its pre-cancer tone and pitch.
“What’s next for me? I’m eager to mentor patients who are going through similar circumstances. I’m incredibly resilient, strong and optimistic. If I had some advice for others, I’d encourage them to focus on those things. Plus my husband, family and friends provided an immense amount of support for which I am eternally grateful. Don’t be afraid to lean on those who care about you.”
And while her career was always important to her, the cancer diagnosis was an “aha” moment.
“It was important for me to slow down, to laugh more and embrace levity in my life. It was life changing, but it was life changing in a way that I’m grateful for.”